There’s nothing more painful than having writing talent—yet being blocked from expressing it. A lifeless imagination withers the spirit of the aspiring scribe. The problem is called writer’s block.
Writer’s block and other creativity blocks are symptoms or consequences of one or more unresolved psychological issues. Such issues hinder many varieties of self-expression and satisfying achievement, whether in the arts, sciences, mass media, or other endeavors.
The challenge is (1) to solve the mystery of whatever is blocking you, and (2) to have the will to move forward against the resistance you will feel in working through the issue or issues.
In the case of literary fiction, writers produce their content by way of their intelligence, knowledge, and unconscious mind. Often the richest and most original content emerges from the unconscious mind. The flow and quality of this content is influenced by the writer’s shifting psychological dynamics. The work of art itself becomes a dramatization of the writer’s unresolved inner conflict (or neurotic difficulty). In other words, the writer is trying to settle an inner conflict. Hence, the writer’s creative powers are somewhat at the mercy of unconscious defenses and counter-defenses.
What would be an example of one of the several inner conflicts that can plague literary writers? (First, let me say that such inner conflicts, when described to the naïve mind, can appear preposterous. Many people reject psychoanalysis because they can’t accept what defies common sense. Both the inner world of our psyche and the outer world of the cosmos contain many features and properties that defy common sense. Yet, in our egocentric mentality, we cling to common sense, that thin thread of illusory security we weave through reality.)
Writers feel pleasure and egotistical satisfaction in producing clever, interesting prose. The feeling is, “I, myself, am the originator of this brilliance.” But lurking in their psyche are lingering emotional attachments to refusal and deprivation that go back to the oral stage of childhood development. Their defense is, “I am not attached to feeling refused; see how much pleasure I feel when I give these clever words to myself.” The writer’s psychological conflict is between wanting consciously to produce lovely words and anticipating unconsciously that his or her imagination will refuse to give or provide those words. This is why many writers live in fear of losing their creative powers.
Successful writers produce the clever words that “prove” how much they want to feel fulfilled. Blocked writers succumb to the inner temptation to be overtaken by what is unresolved in their psyche—an emotional attachment to feeling refused. (Along with refusal, such writers can also be suffering from their emotional attachment to the passive feeling of helplessness, of being powerless to act on their own behalf.)
When defenses are stable, the writer can produce successful sublimations in the form of high-quality writing. Over time, however, defenses can become unstable. Now the writer’s output no longer resolves the inner conflict. His or her creative energy is drained in the production of ineffective defenses. The flow of inner material now dries up, and the writer becomes, in terms of literary output, sterile or impotent.
Is there evidence for the truth of this psychoanalytic contention? The best works of fiction portray a protagonist who attains some measure of inner growth and self-development, if not moral or spiritual triumph. However, many novelists, including favorites of the critics, present flawed characters who fail to rise above their circumstances or predicaments. Often the hero or protagonist is presented as a likeable (or at least sympathetic) rascal, fool, loser, or degenerate. These books are often portraits of family dysfunction. Often the main characters experience their situations through helplessness and hopelessness, and walk away at the end feeling empty and disappointed.
This is Norman Mailier’s assessment of American literary novels:
Writers aren’t taken seriously anymore, and a large part of the blame must go to the writers of my generation, most certainly including myself. We haven’t written the books that should have been written. . . . We haven’t done the imaginative work that could have helped define America, and as a result, our average citizen does not grow in self-understanding. We just expand all over the place, and this spread is about as attractive as collapsed and flabby dough on a stainless steel table. (The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing. Random House, New York, 2004. 163).
Unconsciously, the writer of such mediocre books is trying to convince his inner critic (along with his readers) to support his defense, to the effect that suffering in the forms of refusal, emptiness, disappointment, helplessness, failure, and moral weakness is the way of the world. “This is how it is,” the writer’s defense contends, “this is the way people are. I’m not the only one who is hopelessly attached to these forms of suffering.” Many readers of these books, who don’t want to feel challenged by a protagonist’s heroic inner growth, buy into the author’s defense.
Here are some issues, defenses, and symptoms—many of which are interconnected—that can produce (or be a factor in) writer’s block and other forms of creative inhibition:
1. Fear of exposure as a failure, with issues of shame and humiliation;
2. Expectation of being rejected, as well as self-rejection or even self-hatred;
3. Feeling inadequate, flawed, and defective;
4. Issues of passivity, powerlessness, and helplessness;
5. Lingering effects of parental messages;
6. Self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-condemnation;
8. Negative exhibitionism and the claim-to-power defense;
9. Self-defeating use of the imagination;
10. Feeling drained by the effort required to succeed;
11. Fear of missing the boat. Feeling refused and deprived;
12. Unspecified guilt;
13. Negative inner voices;
14. Injustice collecting;
15. Excessive self-centeredness, producing lack of purpose other than ego satisfaction;
16. Intellectual impairment (as differing from impairment of the imagination) caused by neurosis or emotional dysfunction.
Writer’s block can be very painful for the writer, to say nothing of the unpleasantness of lost income. However, the writer can undo the blockage when he or she makes conscious the underlying issue and understands the nature of the defense.
Even talented, successful writers can bring their work and achievement to a new level by recognizing and dealing with subtle emotional issues that are at play in their psyche.